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Innovative 3D printing technology could help to transform the way that doctors and audiologists are able to treat hearing loss in deaf and hard-of-hearing patients.
Scientists at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, US have been using 3D printers to make prosthetic implants for the inner ear that have the potential to restore hearing function.
The research team recently presented their findings at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America, explaining how they had successfully managed to create prosthetic replacements for damaged sections of the inner ear.
They have so far focused on creating 3D-printed ossicles, as these are the tiny bones in the middle ear that transmit sound vibrations from the ear drum to the cochlea. If the ossicles are damaged, due to a trauma to the ear or an infection perhaps, people's hearing function can be adversely affected.
Ossicles can be replicated and replaced surgically, but the procedure typically has a high failure rate, with each individual prosthesis needing to be created in the operating theatre from stainless steel struts and ceramic cups.
However, 3D printing technology means that doctors can engineer these prostheses in advance of each operation, ensuring they are suitable ahead of time.
In trials, the US researchers have been using CT scans to take images of patients' inner ears, feeding these into the printing technology to make sure the 3D prostheses fit their ear as closely as possible.
Dr Jeffrey Hirsch, lead researcher on the investigation, commented: "This study highlights the core strength of 3D printing - the ability to very accurately reproduce anatomic relationships in a space to a sub-millimetre level. With these models, it's almost a snap fit."
He added that he believes this innovation could even lead to hearing function being fully restored in deaf patients in the future.
"Instead of making the middle ear prosthesis solid, you could perforate it to be a lattice that allows stem cells to grow on to it," Dr Hirsch explained.
"The stem cells would mature into bone and become a permanent fix for patients with hearing loss."
Written by James Puckle
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